How we all became futurists out of necessity rather than by choice
Think about all the different situations where we try and predict the future. When we watch movies, for example, it’s almost a natural instinct to try and predict what will happen in future scenes. To do this we pick up on clues that we remember from our previous experiences. If the music sounds tense, we know a monster is likely to spring out and surprise us, if the music turns hopeful – then we know that things will begin to wind down towards their natural conclusion. The reference points within a script are always more or less the same: if a good-looking boy and pretty girl accidentally bump into one another in a rom-com, then we know that they will inevitably fall in love. Hollywood isn’t exactly overflowing with surprises. The problem in life is, that unlike Hollywood movies, there are no musical clues to hint as to what’s coming next. We just have to do our best with as much, or as little, information as we have available to us. It’s our ability to read and perceive the context we find ourselves in, which ultimately makes the difference.
We humans are, by our very nature “predictologists”(or at least we try to be). Seeing as we can’t fly, we aren’t particularly strong, nor do we have lethal claws with which to swipe away at potential threats; we instinctively look for signals of incoming danger so that we may protect ourselves through the power of prevention.
Prediction for profit
Nowadays, this human instinct has become commoditized: investigators, researchers and consultants are entrusted to find hidden clues, trends and indicators that can help their employers gain some kind of competitive advantage. You would think that in today’s era of information, predicting the future would be easier than ever before, however those of us that make a living from doing so, know that this is not the case. Yes, there is a startling amount of information available to us, but when we zoom in to take a closer look; we often find that a very small percentage of it is actually of use to us. A lot of the time the story the data tells can be contradictory leaving us more confused than when we started. In the world of big data it’s perhaps easier to get lost in the numbers than it is to find that little piece of information that can help us make confident predictions. This confusion by infoxication brings with it the added danger of making us believe we are better at predicting the future than we actually are.
We suck at predicting
Just as the art of prediction is one of our species’ great defences against the dangers of the future, it is perhaps one our greatest weaknesses as well: We overestimate our ability to do so, we can be easily misled and occasionally we allow ourselves to be tricked by false clues. There are many examples which point to the fact that, as a society, we are becoming less and less efficient at doing so: Pearl Harbour, 9/11, the financial crash of 08 and Brexit are all examples of shocks that the experts failed to see coming (perhaps because they didn’t want to – ignorance is bliss?).
BUT WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN?
We are more irrational than we are rational
Simple really. We are humans and as such we are fallible. Despite the fact that for centuries we have believed ourselves to be rational beings, beings that weigh up the pros and cons of each situation before making sensible decisions, the reality is that we are not. Countless studies have proved that our decision-making is based in the emotional, or in that which requires the least amount of immediate effort, or even, in that which we chose to hide from ourselves.
We are more closed than open
When a possible outcome of a situation is unfamiliar to us, we tend not to even consider it. Instead we become almost blind to it, almost as if we have some kind of medical problem (which actually exists – it’s called Anosognosia), which impedes us from being able to perceive our own sickness. Add to this any form of accumulated institutional blindness; brought about by the stagnation from being in a particular industry or company for so long that we are not aware of the context outside, and we are left in a false reality.
Processes are more discontinuous than linear
Economic, psychological, strategic or business models tend to be based upon a linear line of logic that doesn’t always fit with what we experience day-to-day. Unexpected variables reveal themselves along the way, complicating the initially straightforward landscape. The influence technology has had on the way we interact with people is undeniable.
The world becomes more unpredictable by the day
We used to be taught that our lives would follow an inevitable yet simple pattern: We are born, we grow, we reproduce, and then we die. Yet one of the most exciting things about being alive in this era is precisely the sense of excitement that accompanies unpredictability. We now believe that we are masters of our own destiny, that each of us is free to choose our own path through life, that there is no predetermined plan we must follow; that the fate of our future is in our own hands.
Carrying on from the initial thought where we highlighted the natural urge to predict the fate of a Hollywood film character, let us imagine that our lives are a kind of series, one with various unexpected plot twists along the way. We believe things will pan out a certain way by following the clues we have been trained to pick up on over the years, then suddenly Game of Thrones, Black Mirror or Lost comes along, and we realise that the experience of the unexpected is a far richer and more enjoyable one. Today life is more like one of these series’ than that of a traditional and predictable Blockbuster.
Does this mean we should give up on trying to predict the future? On the contrary, we must continue to do as we have always done; we just have to be smarter about how we do it. To handle the unpredictability of the world and be able to operate successfully in the future today we have two great tools at our disposal: Foresight and change management.
Building desirable scenarios: Foresight
A common misconception is to confuse foresight with some kind of magical, crystal ball-style, prophecy device. However, when used correctly, it is quite the opposite. It is actually a rather scientific process, with a structured methodology, that can help us build realistic future scenarios, even if no forecasting model that depends on humans is ever going to be 100% accurate.
Expert futurologists speak of foresight as if it where like any other exercisable muscle in the body: the more we project, the better we become at doing so. As Nate Silver, the renowned American stats and futures man within the world of politics and sports, says:
“We must have the serenity to accept the things we cannot predict, the courage to predict the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
With foresight we aim to predict possible future outcomes for a particular organization, industry or even a country. Its intention is to remove uncertainty and to evaluate the decisions we take in the present with where we wish to reach in the future. Even if the future cannot be known with absolute certainty, there will always be different possible outcomes to any situation that will depend on the decisions taken in the present.
3 things to consider when building a successful foresight model
1. Consider the past and the present before mapping out the future
When we look to the past, we do so to understand: What worked, what we could have done better and what possible patterns or clues we can pick up on that could repeat themselves in the future (even if the exact situation we are facing doesn’t have an exact replica in the past). We must then turn to the present to search for variables that may be in play today that perhaps didn’t feature in previous situations. Once we have assimilated what once was with what currently is, we can then look to project onto what could potentially be: Imagining what is possible, evaluating what is probable and most importantly, deciding on what it is that we would prefer.
2. Have clarity as to what it is we want
If mapping out what we believe to be probable is important, then it is also of equal importance to compliment this with an idea of what it is that we wish to occur. This is called envisioning: to make a visualisation of the future so strong in our minds that it acts as a magnet helping to draw us towards it. A major component of someone’s self-awareness lies in how they perceive their own future and potential, in what they want become and in what they fear they may become.
3. Understand that there are things that we don’t even know that we don’t know
I know this sounds like some sort of tongue twister that the Oracle may have given Neo in the Matrix, but it’s not as ludicrous as it sounds. There are things we know we know (like general knowledge), there are things we know we don’t know (like our ability to breathe without having to think about doing it) and then there are things we don’t even know that we don’t know – and it’s precisely these things that are crucial to consider when we look to have successfully foresight. What we sometimes call the unknown unknowns are elements which we never even contemplated could exist, the things we never thought to ask ourselves. We don’t ask ourselves these questions because we have some kind of mental block that obscures them from our sight. The challenge is to ask ourselves the kind of intelligent, creative and strategic questions that can help to bring them out of hiding.
Sponsorship * Flexibility * Involvement * Impact * Communication
Using change in our favour: Change Management
As we have discussed, linear models can help us to conceptualise certain scenarios; yet they don’t always stand up to the scrutiny of the real world. Recognising how unpredictable the real world can be, our best approach is to adopt an almost beta mentality, one which holds flexibility at the heart of its actions. This is the very essence of change management. Every day we hear more and more about it but what we must remember about it, is simple: It is not so much about shaping the change of the collective organizational structure but rather, it’s about shaping the behaviour of the individuals within it. For this to work, you need those at the top of the pyramid to take clear decisions and to be prepared to communicate them effectively down the chain of command; committing the people involved by making them part of the decision making process.
And if all this fails?
Unlike our initial analogy where, if a film doesn’t turn out as expected we are pleasantly surprised, if our projections for our company don’t turn out as planned, then the surprise tends not to be so pleasant. The philosophy of change management allows us to swiftly react to change by making tweaks to our business strategy before it’s too late. Initially this is done through the process of trial and error and then over time, through the training of our capacity to react to change. The organizations that survive will be those that manage to redefine their ability to maintain flexible and fluid in the face of unpredictability.
Considering all of this, market researches are urged to rethink their role. They need to migrate from a mindset of being “narrators of findings” to one in which they dare to predict. In this way, they can better accompany different organizations to navigate the volatile scenarios in which we all currently find ourselves.